This piece is cross-posted from the Global Policy blog, where it has been published as part of Global Policy’s new e-book, ‘Emergence, Convergence and the Future of Aid’, edited by Andy Sumner. Contributions from academics and practitioners will be serialised on Global Policy until the e-book’s release in the first quarter of 2014. Find out more here or join the debate onTwitter #GPfutureofaid.

There is a pervasive and longstanding bias in aid. While few individuals actually believe the tenets of this bias, and no organisations explicitly state it as their business model, the bias is part of the DNA of the system. It’s implications are far from trivial: aid agencies are incentivized to treat the world as a simple, predictable place in which aid can be delivered, as if on a global conveyor belt, to bring about positive changes. “We act as if development is a construction, a matter of planning and engineering.”

Due to a combination of political expediency, administrative convenience, and organizational culture, aid agencies have strong institutional tendencies toward operating as though the world is one enormous Newtonian clockwork: predictable, ordered, mechanical. This is not to say that there is not debate and dissent in organisations against this model, or that there are not parts of the system that have greater diversity in their modus operandi. But increasingly frequent references to the ‘outmoded business model of aid’ – a term which may be just as likely to come from tub-thumping journalists as prominent aid leaders – I would argue that it is this basic operating that is, in part at least, being described.

However the challenge in foreign aid is that such biases are not aberrations or one-offs but a fundamental part of the rules of the game. Although this is not the intention of anyone working in aid, these institutional tendencies result in a system where simplicity is repeatedly, consistently, and often damagingly chosen over relevance and appropriateness. They amount to a widespread tendency towards seeing interconnected, dynamic, open problems as simple, closed problems that can be planned for, controlled, and measured.

This is of course a feature of many public policy systems, as noted by economist Paul Ormerod: ‘The world is seen as a machine, admittedly a complicated one, but one which can be controlled with the right pressure on this button, just the right amount of pull on that lever . . . everything can be quantified and targets can be not only set but also achieved, thanks to the cleverness of experts.’ As a result of this institutional bias, aid agencies are increasingly dealing with a world for which their learning, strategic, performance, and organizational frameworks were not designed.

This gives all of us in aid a simple choice: do we continue to struggle to answer questions with an intellectual toolkit not designed with such problems in mind, and a policy and operational toolkit that lags even further behind? Clearly the answer is no. At the heart of the scientific method is the basic need to identify the relevant approaches that can be used for any given problem. You wouldn’t expect scientists to use a thermometer to measure length, or a barometer to determine volume. You wouldn’t expect physicians to assess possible fractures with a stethoscope, or mental health problems with an endoscope.

Although these are all exaggerated examples, the tools available to aid agencies in their work often leave those designing, planning and implementing interventions in much the same position. As one senior donor put it, out of exasperation as much as anything else, ‘we want simple problems with simple solutions so we can demonstrate value for money.’ Of course, some problems can be treated as if they are indeed mechanical, simple problems, for which there are recipes and best practices, and one best, simple, answer. But many of the problems faced by aid agencies are just not like this.

Among scientists, there has been a growing movement to expand the tools and techniques available, precisely because of a longstanding appreciation that the tools and assumptions of a Newtonian paradigm are not appropriate for all contexts. Starting in the 1940s, this has turned into a global movement, bringing together physicists, biologists, computer scientists, mathematicians, anthropologists, and economists. As Nobel Laureate Ilya Prirogine argued: ‘We are witnessing the emergence of a science that is no longer limited to simplified, idealised situations but rather one which confronts the complexity of the world and allows human creativity to flourish.’ This broad and diverse movement is known as the study of complex adaptive systems. Some of the most influential thinkers of the last 100 years have been championing such approaches, on all sides of the intellectual and political spectrum, from Frederick Hayek to Jane Jacobs. So spectacular is the potential of these new scientific tools that Stephen Hawking has said that the 21st century ‘will be the century of complexity’.

This has enabled us to understand diverse phenomena from the disruption of ecosystems to the growth of the internet; at every scale from the growth of embryos to the death of galaxies. Rather closer to home for development actors, complexity research has helped us better understand how our social, economic and political worlds really work. They help us see how the social systems of which we are a part are not mechanical, but emergent, shaped by feedback processes and interdependence. It has helped analyse how human actions and behaviours are not perfectly rational but are profoundly affected by our ability to adapt to contexts and to each other. It has shown that the networked structure of human relationships shape the emergence and spread of everything from fashions to diseases. It has yielded insights into how change really happens, from the unpredictable trajectories of war and peace, to the slow diffusion of cultural practices.

In my book, Aid on the Edge of Chaos, I give detailed accounts of how growing numbers of innovators are employing complex systems approaches to rethink and improve aid efforts. They include:

  • dealing with child malnutrition in Vietnam through adaptive community-focused approaches resulting in a widespread fall in starvation rates, contributing to national improvements from over 50% to less than 10% in the 1990s
  • analysing national economies as dynamic networks of products, which has led to a method which is up to 10 times better than existing approaches at predicting national growth rates
  • dealing with malaria as an ecological as well as a health problem, which has radically reduced malaria incidence rates in the most endemic Mwea region of Kenya to several hundred deaths a year to almost none
  • reversing desertification in Zimbabwe by looking at animals, humans and the environment as an interconnected system
  • improving child literacy in slums in India through technology and the power of social networks

These examples and a whole host of others in the book serve to illustrate that aid can indeed be transformed for the better through the use of cutting-edge science and innovation, to be more systemic, adaptive, networked, and dynamic. Such aid is a move away from the ‘external push’ model —filling perceived gaps in a predictable and linear fashion— and moving towards a more ‘catalytic’ model: identifying, expanding, and sustaining the space for change. Such aid can challenge the existing status quo, and release new energies into unconsidered and unforeseen directions. Every aid initiative, from this perspective, is a new opportunity—to experiment, prototype, and get a foothold in new realities. Such aid would not seek simply to expand on the current model with minor adjustments and more technical silver bullets. It would encourage aid agencies to anticipate, adapt, learn, and transform their thinking and their actions in light of the complex realities they face.

What this all amounts to is a call for a more practical, attainable vision of development. This would be based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on the adaptive evolution that we see in all human institutions. What might this look like? To quote the late great Lin Ostrom, whose ideas and guidance profoundly shaped my book, the aid system of the future would:

reward people for developing imaginative ideas that draw on the complexity of the real world, that leave people in developing countries more autonomous, less dependent, and more capable of crafting their own future”

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. […] of complexity in development (Here are some great posts that can catch you up on that debate: Complexity and the Future of Aid and Complexity 101 Part 1 and Part […]

  2. […] Despite relentless criticism from some corners of the isolationist right at home, and despite a constant questioning of the effectiveness of aid in fostering development, the UK Department for International […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Networks, Organisations, Public Policy, Research, Resilience, Self organisation, Strategy, Uncategorized